WE’VE TRAVELED a long distance with the David Crowder*Band—from smoky bluegrass festivals to the grimy halls of your local nightclub, from hallowed cathedrals where saints bend in prayer to the harried tongue-speaking chaos of tent revivals. Their latest, Church Music, recapitulates the band’s typical clatter, diffusing the Waco, Texas six piece’s thirteen years of deconstructionist pomp into seventeen tracks, mostly devoted to convincing listeners that there has been a hidden method to Crowder’s madness since the beginning. And maybe there has: as we said in our review of the band’s last album, they have always been “wedded to the humdrum contemporary-worship form.”

On this fifth album, a redundant, broad-strokes statement of Sunday School theology, wrapped in cover art that nods wryly to the campy religious sensationalism of Southern gospel, the bigger picture threatens to steal any remaining charm in the group’s cut-and-paste antics. By the end, we’ve gorged on another helping of the same tasteless matter: safe pop that sounds pretty but doesn’t deeply stir the soul even if you can forget about the babbling gatherings for which it is likely intended.

Church Music is a step forward from Remedy’s tired ambivalence, but Crowder isn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done lately, he’s just doing more of it—more tunes, more instruments, more electronic effects, more popular covers. Ever wondered what Flyleaf by way of a worship band would sound like? Yeah, me neither. But it’s here: “All Around Me,” stripped down to a barely-there piano accompaniment, and masculine vocals that fail to capture the vulnerability of the original. And did we need another cover of John Mark McMillan’s “How He Loves”? We get it: the song has a powerful back story. The Crowder version’s Tomlin-esque instrumentation—acoustic guitars leading into a predictable, cymbal-accented climax, offset with another ode to the Edge—give another desperate wring to a song already suffering from diminishing emotional returns.

“Church Music – [Dance!]” belongs on a Family Force 5 album rather than anywhere near these guys, but its silly retro funk is more listenable than one might care to admit. Trumpets, drugged-up female vocals, auto-tune: it’s all here, for better or worse, and no one can accuse the band of being half-hearted. Likewise, “Oh Happiness” borrows a page from the Joy Electric, but its sing-till-your-lungs-give-out chorus smells of youth group.

On the final stretch, the balls-out grunge of “God Almighty, None Compares” and symphonic staccato of “In the End [Oh Resplendent Light]” give a second wind to the self-indulgent, electronic dawdling of the album’s sagging middle. Part of me likes this whole bloated affair far more than any of the band’s other work, but when pressed to explain why, I really can’t. Bland is bland, but it’s certainly easier to accept from a playfully derivative “hipster” worship band than from over-earnest proselytizers like Casting Crowns.

Allure eliminated, it’s quite possible listeners will enjoy Crowder and company more now than when we all tried to grant them a place in the bland canon of Serious Evangelical Works of Art. They were always a pop band, but their affinity for surface oddity inspired a wave of absurd expectations. With an album that finally lets them revel in their own collegiate enthusiasm, they make the most comforting sounds of their career: those of musicians no longer feeling the burden of misplaced critical acclaim.

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Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

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